Riverine and Rainforest Trees at Victoria Falls

One cannot help but be awed by the trees in the Victoria Falls area. The tropical climate and the proximity of the river ensure that there are magnificent trees along the Zambezi and in town.
Photo: Prof. Lee Berger
The following trees are among the most characteristic of the Victoria Falls area. Trees commonly found along the river and in the rain forest include:
Ilala Palm or Vegetable Ivory (Hyphaene ventricosa) Munganda (Sh); Ilala (Nd)

Characteristics: Striking large palm reaching about 15m to 20m in height; stem is un-branched and bears a large crown of fan-shaped leaves; fruits are borne in a cluster on female trees and are round, brown balls, slightly larger than a golf ball; the tree is usually set back from the water's edge or in proximity to subterranean water.

Animal associations: Baboons shimmy up the trees to get the fruits; elephants shake the trees and collect the fruits, which fall as a result; palm swifts nest underneath the leaves.

Traditional or medicinal uses: Pulp of the fruit is eaten; fronds are used to weave baskets, and the sap is used to make a particularly powerful palm wine.

Wild Date Palm (Phoenix reclinata) Nzalu (Sh); Isuna (Nd)

Characteristics: Smaller than the vegetable ivory, this palm grows up to 6m in height and has feather-shaped leaves; found on water's edge.

Animal associations: Foliage browsed by elephants; fruits eaten by many animals and birds.

Traditional or medicinal uses: Fruit is eaten; fronds used for basket-weaving; sap used to make palm wine.

Sausage Tree (Kigelia africana) Mubveve (Sh); Umvebe (Nd)

Characteristics: An easily recognisable, large, riverine tree with light grey bark and a spreading crown; the enormous sausage-shaped fruits are a conspicuous feature and hang visibly for many months; in spring it produces beautiful, deep maroon flowers.

Animal associations: Leaves browsed by kudu and elephants; the flowers are rich in nectar, attracting many birds (Meyer's parrots will bite a hole at the base of the flower to get to the nectar) and other animals, such as baboons and monkeys; nectar-feeding fruit bats are the most important pollinating agents; the unpalatable fruits are eaten by porcupines and occasionally by bushpig, baboons and monkeys.

Traditional or medicinal uses: Unripe fruits are used to make medication to treat syphilis and rheumatism; ripe fruits aid fermentation of beer; ointment made from an extract of the fruit is used to treat skin conditions; in times of famine, the seeds are roasted and eaten; in local customs, boys at puberty choose and tend a growing fruit, harvesting it at a size they would like their penis to grow to; the fruits are hung in many traditional homes as they are believed to be a charm against whirlwinds.

Broom-cluster Fig (Ficus sur) Mukuyu (Sh); Umkhiwa (Nd)

Characteristics: Large tree found in forests and riverine fringes (see specimens in Victoria Falls rain forest); it produces colourful, round fruits (actually an inverted flower) in large clusters on the trunk and branches; the entire tree produces a milky latex.

Animal associations: Interesting symbiotic relationship with wasps; fruits are favoured by many insects, fruit-eating birds and fruit bats.

Traditional or medicinal uses: Wood is light and soft but has been used to make drums; sticks from the tree can be used to make fire by friction; fruits full of insects but sweet and can be used to make jam; in traditional medicine, an extract is used to treat burns and conjunctivitis; eating the first fruits is believed to bring good fortune; the young leaves can be cooked and eaten; traditional African association with fertility - goats were sacrificed at these trees to bring rain or ensure a good harvest; a liquid made from this tree is given to cows to increase their milk production.

Sycamore Fig (Ficus sycamorus) Mukuyu (Sh); Umkhiwa (Nd)

Characteristics: Very large tree with deeply fluted, orange-barked stem; leaves are round and rough to touch; grows near water; distinctive clusters of fruit on the branches.

Animal associations: Fruits attract many insects, birds and mammals - particularly fruit bats; elephants fond of the leaves; fruits that fall into the water are eaten by fish.

Traditional or medicinal uses: Tasty preserve and alcoholic spirit can be made from the fruits; young leaves cooked for food and also fed to cows to stimulate milk production; the latex and bark are used medicinally for chest and stomach complaints.

Waterberry (Syzygium guineense ssp barotsense) Mukute (Sh); Gihlu (Nd)

Characteristics: Grows right on water's edge with its roots in the water. Low branching. Conspicuous purple fruits.

Animal associations: Fruits eaten by a variety of animals, particularly birds (and fish that feed on the fruit that falls in the water); at night, ripe fruit attracts fruit bats and bushbabies; the larvae of two butterflies feed on this tree (the orange-coloured playboy and the brown playboy).

Traditional or medicinal uses: Fruits are astringent but are eaten by humans.

Natal Mahogany (Trichilia emetica) Mutsikiri (Sh); Umsikili (Nd)

Characteristics: Large riverine tree with deep green leaves that provide good shade; characteristically round canopy with low-reaching branches.

Animal associations: Young leaves are browsed by kudu, often leaving a browse-line; fruits eaten by monkeys and baboons while the seeds are eaten by hornbills.

Traditional or medicinal uses: The scarlet arils are edible; oil extracted from the seeds is used to make soap and to relieve rheumatism or assist in healing of fractured bones; leaves infused in hot water soothe bruises.

African Ebony (Diospyros mespiliformis) Mushanje (Sh); Umdlawuzo (Nd)

Characteristics: Large tree found on river banks and around pans; very dark bark and buttressed stem; green, grape-sized fruits that become yellow as they ripen. Animal associations: Delicious fruits favoured by all fruit-eating birds, and many mammals, including jackal and civet; elephants and kudu browse on the foliage.

Traditional or medicinal uses: Fruit is eaten and can be used to make an alcoholic beverage; also used to make decoctions for treating ringworm and dysentery; an extract with antibiotic properties has been identified.

The Amazing Waterberry

The most common tree in the rain forest is a curious hybrid of the Waterberry - a cross between two subspecies Syzigyum guineense and Syzygium cordatum.

Of the 1 202 trees in the rain forest counted during a 1978 survey by a Zimbabwean botanist, 417 were found to be the waterberry hybrid. There was only one specimen of S cordatum and none of S guineense.

What is fascinating about this study is that hybrid species cannot reproduce themselves through conventional reproduction and that all attempts to grow hybrids from seed have failed completely.

The rain forest waterberries were found, however, to be capable of reproducing themselves vegetatively - in other words, shoots off the parent plant were capable of surviving and growing if detached and planted in the soil. It appears that the soil conditions in the rainforest enable the waterberry to bypass normal seed dispersal and reproduce by producing suckers that are initially nurtured by the parent tree before becoming independent trees in their own right.

Brett Hilton-Barber and Lee R. Berger. Copyright © 2010 Prime Origins.

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